Saturday, August 11, 2007

Luke 4-6

Luke 4:1-13: The Holy Spirit, which had descended on Jesus at his baptism, continues to fill him and guide him. Jesus ends up in the wilderness to be tempted there. The narrative repeats that in Matthew 4, though the temptations are ordered differently. That Luke places the scene of the final temptation in Jerusalem may be his way of foreshadowing that this will be the place of a future trial of Jesus, a future time of struggle. Luke ends his story with ominous words about the tempter/devil. “He departed from him until an opportune time. Unfortunately, temptation to wander from living faithfully will always be with us. It is never completely absent. All these temptations of Jesus are presented as opportunities to do greater good – provide bread, rule the world, bring people to God through spectacular means. Jesus refuses each. The end result is not all that matters. How we achieve what we understand to be God’s purposes for the world also matters. Material needs are important, but they are not all of life. One can lead and rule for good, but such leadership can lose its moral force if getting to the top was all that mattered. The way to God is not always spectacular, but often requires traveling the dusty back roads, teaching and healing along the way. The way may even be the way of a cross.

Luke 4:14-15: In Mark, transitions were often abrupt – “then” and “now” were often used. Luke has a strong sense that Jesus was a person full of the Spirit of God (as would be appropriate for one called “son of God”). Jesus ministry begins “in the power of the Spirit” in Galilee. There is no mention here that John’s arrest was a part of the beginning of his ministry. In this summary statement we are simply told that Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit,” went to Galilee where word about him spread (though we don’t know why at this point), and he began to teach to the praises of everyone.

Luke 4:16-30: Both Matthew and Mark place a similar incident in Nazareth later in the ministry of Jesus. Luke places it here perhaps as a way to communicate to his largely Gentile audience that very early on, Jesus was rejected by some of his own people. Rejection will be an important part of the ministry experience of Jesus, and here Luke helps foreshadow that. Jesus quotes from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6). The words are words of promise to a people in exile, and Luke uses them as a way to summarize what the ministry of Jesus will be about. For Luke, the ministry of Jesus defines what God’s kingdom is all about, and in Jesus it was happening (today this scripture is fulfilled). As God’s people who also live “in the power of the Spirit,” our lives should share in this ministry. There seems to be an initial positive response, followed quickly by a negative reaction that is a little difficult to understand. It seems related to Jesus familiarity in this his hometown. Jesus cites stories from the Hebrew Scriptures which indicate that God often works through those outside the typical community of faith. The anger of the people rises to such a pitch that they want to run him off a cliff, but he has work to do and goes no his way. Doing good is not always well-received. When people change for the better, those who knew them before are often skeptical of the change. We continue the work of Jesus even when there is opposition and rejection.

Luke 4:31-37: Now Jesus goes to Capernaum, and teaches there. While teaching (and his teaching was well-received) a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon makes an appearance. This story repeats the story in Mark 1:21-28. For Luke, the Spirit that fills Jesus has the power and authority to overcome spirits that are detrimental to human life. This healing/exorcism leads to word being spread about Jesus. As we do the healing work given us, positive word may spread as well.

Luke 4:38-41: Luke has not yet introduced us to Simon until now. We have no context for his going to Simon’s house, just the report that he did, and when he got there he healed her fever. This is just the beginning of a series of healings and exorcisms in that place. As previously noted, such stories are often difficult for modern readers who seek healing from a doctor, not a spiritual teacher, and who have virtually no experience of demons. Healings and exorcisms were a part of the intellectual and cultural landscape of Jesus time. In fact, Jesus was not the only first-century Jew about whom healing and exorcism stories were told. Our focus in reading such passages should be less on trying to figure out what may have happened and more on what is this story trying to say in its context and for our lives. Luke tells these stories, passes down traditions he has heard, in order to say something about Jesus. His presence in people’s lives was a healing and freeing one. While we may consult physicians for physical ailments today, there remain in our lives wide areas for “healing.” Though we may have difficulty with the idea of unclean spirits possessing us, many of us experience things inside of us which cause us to engage in actions harmful to ourselves and others – anger that gets out of control, a sadness which taints our view of the world. There are large social forces which also hold us “captive” in a meaningful sense of that word. Is there something “demonic” about a health care system that keeps 45 million citizens of our country uninsured and also causes us not to ask whether it has to be that way? Was there something demonic about our country when we just took for granted that African-Americans should be segregated? In stories of healing and exorcism, Luke is making a point about the powerful presence of the Spirit-filled Jesus. His touch healed and freed. As Christians we believe it still does. I recently read a story about a man that was so moved by the sight of a Zen teacher leaving a Zen center that he was lead to begin meditation. “I never saw a back that straight before. I watched it. I stood there a moment after I could no longer see it. Then I crossed the street, went in, and asked them to teach me how to sit.” (Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway, 117-118). I am not equating Jesus with this Zen monk, only noting that Luke is trying to convey something of the powerful impact of Jesus on people’s lives and reminding us that such things still happen. Again, as Christians, we believe they still happen as Jesus is present in human lives. Where do you need healing from Jesus? How can you let the presence of Jesus shine through you so that others are drawn to him?

Luke 4:42-44: As in other gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a person who seeks silence in his life from time to time. Crowds seek him out, here afraid that he may leave them and wanting him to stay. Jesus has a mission (proclaiming the kingdom of God) and must move on. Like the crowds we are afraid to let good things get too far away from us. We need to be reminded that the spread of goodness anywhere contribute to God’s dream for the world, a dream which includes us all. This is Luke’s first introduction of the term “kingdom of God” “a reference both to the saving activity of God and to the community and practices of people who embody among themselves God’s saving purpose” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). For Luke, the kingdom of God was something that Jesus embodied, that was present in Jesus and his work, and was something that would come in its fullness at some future time. But what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God divides contemporary Jesus scholarship…. The primary disagreement is… not about the content of what the kingdom would be like, but how and when Jesus thought this would happen…. The phrase “kingdom of God” names God’s passion for the earth – God’s will, God’s promise, God’s dream…. It’s not just about politics, but is the way the world would be if God were king, and the kings and domination systems of this world were not. It is God’s dream, God’s passion, God’s will, God’s promise, God’s intention for the earth, God’s utopia – the blessed place, the ideal state of affairs…. It is about our relationship to God as persons…. It is about God’s passion for a different kind of world. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 186, 188, 252, 225). I have previously written about Borg’s view of “participatory eschatology” and probably will mention it again later in these reflections about Luke’s gospel.

Luke 5:1-11: Jesus is on his way to proclaim and embody the kingdom of God, and along the way he begins to gather disciples. The lake of Gennesaret is another name for the Sea of Galilee. A crowd is gathered here around Jesus. He asks for some help from a local fisherman, and then offers him some advice about fishing. Simon Peter and the others reluctantly follow the advice and to their astonishment, a great catch is made. In light of this amazement, Simon Peter sees something special in Jesus and sees something lacking in his own life. In words that have become rather common in Luke, Jesus tells Simon, “Do not be afraid” (remember how often these words were used in the stories of Elizabeth and Mary). Simon, James and John were invited to change vocations – from fishermen to those who would catch people. They leave everything to follow, something many first-century Christians knew about. For Luke, this life-changing encounter with Jesus serves as a model for becoming Jesus’ disciple.

Luke 5:12-16: In contrast to Mark, where words like “then” and “immediately” are used in the transitions, Luke uses the more leisurely “once.” While I am not sure just what to make of this, it indicates again that the gospel writers told the story of Jesus in particular contexts and for particular purposes. It shaped how the story was told. As twenty-first century Christians we need to be asking how we can tell the story of Jesus in such a way that its power and its impact can be experienced by people in our day and time. In some way our job is more difficult than Luke’s. The Jesus movement/Christianity was relatively new on the scene. In our day and time, so many have heard something about Jesus and the Christian faith that sheer familiarity sometimes gets in the way of the power of the story – in our lives as well as in the lives of others. Once, Jesus encountered a leper and healed him. As noted before, healing lepers often was more than physical healing – it involved reintegrating them into the community from which they had been ostracized. Jesus fame spread. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Good advice for our lives, even if we have to create “deserted places” in the midst of our busy schedules.

Luke 5:17-26: Jesus was teaching in the presence of a crowd, including Pharisees and teachers of the law. “The power of the Lord was with him to heal.” A paralyzed man is brought to Jesus through the roof of the house! Jesus notices the faith of those who have brought the man, and tells the man his sins are forgiven. It was quite common in that day to think that sin had something to do with physical ailment (and in our day we recognize that what goes on inside our heads, hearts and souls can have a physical effect). Anyway, Jesus tells the man his sins are forgiven, creating a controversy with the scribes and Pharisees (groups portrayed in Luke as sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile toward Jesus). The Pharisees were lay… leaders of the synagogue. They were non-professional students of the Law…. They emphasized living an authentic, holy life, applying to all Israel the strict rules given only to priests in the Old Testament…. For the most part the historical Pharisees were sincere, serious advocates of the divine law, ethics, and the mission of Israel as a holy people among the nations. They were widely respected among the people and were themselves critical of hypocrisy in their ranks. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) I share that to note that the portrayal of the Pharisees in the New Testament arises out of a conflicted context. Different groups were offering varying definitions of what Judaism should be after the destruction of the Temple. Eventually followers of Jesus were shown the door by persons more associated with Pharisaical Judaism. By the end of the story, however, all are amazed. God is glorified, and the people are left saying, “We have seen strange things today.” It might be nice if people left church now and again saying something like that!

Luke 5:27-32: Jesus call to discipleship extends to “strange people,” too. (Do any of you feel better knowing this?) Tax collectors were “generally regarded with disdain by Jew and Gentile alike” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Jesus calls, Levi the tax collector follows. But Levi does more, he invites Jesus to dinner and there are other tax collectors eating with Jesus and Levi. There are complaints, but Jesus responds to them. He wants to reach out to all who are in need, as a physician reaches out to the sick. Other spiritual traditions use this metaphor as well. “Just as a capable physician might instantly cure a patient who is in pain and seriously ill; so also, dear sir, whatever one hears of the Buddha’s Dharma – one’s sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair will vanish” (Anguttara Nikaya).

Luke 5:33-39: Controversy continues as people note differences between the practice of John’s disciples and Pharisees, who frequently fast and pray, and the disciples of Jesus who eat and drink. Jesus responds by noting the need for celebration at the arrival in him of God’s kingdom. Now Jesus shares a parable, or rather reflects on a series of proverbial sayings about what is old and what is new. The combination of sayings is a little confusing. Luke’s point seems to be that something very new is happening in Jesus and it may burst to bounds of traditional categories. Who really are the sick and sinners? Does associating with those on the edges of society really contaminate one religiously, or does it not bring the sacred to the places it really belongs? Isn’t celebration as important as fasting in response to God’s grace? Sometimes we get so satisfied with the familiar that we simply say, “the old is good” without ever checking out the new.

Luke 6:1-11: We have seen this controversy before in the other gospels – what does it mean to faithfully keep the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath includes doing good, saving life, feeding and healing. Jesus challenge to some of the religious leaders leads them to wonder what they might do to him. In all our spiritual practices, there is a line between faithful observance and an unhealthy clinging that takes the very life that the practices were meant to enhance out of those practices. We usually can’t determine where that line is in advance.

Luke 6:12-16: After another period of prayer, Jesus choose from among his disciples (meaning learner, student, follower) some who would be “apostles” (meaning one sent with a commission). The number twelve is probably symbolic. The lists of names varies from gospel to gospel. Apostle should not be seen by us as someone from the past. In reality, as Christians we are all invited to be both disciples and apostles, followers and students of Jesus and those sent by Jesus to continue his work in the world.

Luke 6:17-19: Luke has not shared much about the content of Jesus’ teaching to this point. In these verses he summarizes Jesus’ ministry and sets the context for an extended look at the teaching of Jesus. Much of this material is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus has come down from the mount and is on a level place. A great crowd has gathered from all around, even from Jerusalem. Among the crowd are his disciples. The crowd has gathered to hear him and to be healed. Isn’t that what we want from our faith, and from the Christ of our faith – to be taught a way of life and to be healed?

Luke 6:20-26: In the midst of the crowd, Jesus directs his teaching to his disciples, just as in Matthew. Verses 20-22 repeats some of the Beatitudes in Matthew, and they make a similar point – God’s dream for the world is often the opposite of what the world considers successful and blessed. When God’s dream for the world arrives in its fullness, those who are now poor and hungry and who weep and are persecuted will be blessed. Perhaps they are blessed even now for their ability to be open to God’s Spirit in Jesus. They have little old wine to be content with, and so are open to receive the new wine of the Spirit in Jesus. On the other hand, those who are currently well-satisfied may find that God’s kingdom has some bad news before it has good news. Those who are now rich and full and laughing and considered well-to-do may find that they way they got there was not the way God wanted them to live. Being content with old wine, they may miss the new wine of God’s Spirit in Jesus. I don’t mean that they won’t get to heaven – that’s not Jesus' focus here. His focus is on distinguishing those who are open to the movement of God’s Spirit from those who are missing in now. Whether they miss it forever is another question.

Luke 6:27-36: If unexpected people are really the one’s who are blessed, then the code of behavior Jesus identifies as appropriate for God’s dream for the world is also surprising. It seems only “natural” to despise one’s enemies. Most of us have felt this personally. As God’s people, touched by the healing Spirit of God in Jesus we are to love our enemies, do good even to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who oppose us. Do good to others as you would have them do good to you (v. 31). Be as merciful, as compassionate as God. This is not simple acquiescence to wrongdoing and harm. It is dignified response and sometimes resistance. In each of the examples Jesus provides for not seeking retaliation, the dignity of the respondent is reaffirmed. Turning the other cheek would force the person hitting you to strike you with the palm of the hand, the way equals fought one another, not backhandedly, the way a superior hit a subordinate. Soldiers were only permitted to conscript a person to carry their gear for a mile, to do more put the soldier in an awkward spot. Giving up a second garment in a two garment society provides for interesting street theater. Resistance to evil is not to be violent, but it may be resistance. The teaching here has deep resonance across some religious traditions. “For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal.” (Buddha, The Dhammapada, verse 6) These words are as challenging to us as to those who first heard Jesus utter them.

Luke 6:37-38: Love and compassion entail being open to others, not being judgmental toward others. These instructions do not mean that followers of Jesus should blandly and indiscriminately accept all practices and lifestyles as equally valid…. Jesus here places all one’s interpersonal relationships in the light of one’s relationship to God. One who knows God’s acceptance despite human sin will see others in the same charitable light in which God has seen us. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Forgiveness and generosity are also a part of love and compassion -and somehow we will find that as we are generous and generous in spirit, we will be recipients of such generosity. “Generosity begets generosity” as Eugene Peterson renders some of this in The Message.

Luke 6:39-40: The model for our lives is our teacher, Jesus.

Luke 6:41-42: This is a repeat of Matthew 7. Matthew and Luke obviously draw from a common source for the material they use as describing the teaching of Jesus. Again note the humor Jesus uses. . Paying more attention to how others are doing seems to be a sign that one’s own transformation in love needs some work. Don’t be judgmental. Pay more attention to your own spiritual life than trying to find fault in the spiritual life of others. If you really want to help others in their spiritual lives, begin by growing in your own. There is an interesting parallel in Buddhist literature. “Look not at the faults of others nor at what they do or leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved” (The Dhammapada, 50).

Luke 6:43-45: Jesus uses yet another image to encourage those listening, and those to whom these teachings will be passed down, to not only listen but to let the teachings become a part of one’s heart, soul and practice. In verses 39-39 “Jesus brings his discourse to a close with a series of parabolic sayings urging his audience not only to listen but to really hear and obey his message” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Here the parabolic image is of good trees bearing good fruit. Jesus wants us to be transformed in love so that we are like good trees bearing good fruit.

Luke 6:46-49: Here Luke ends his version of the Sermon on the Mount, this central collection of Jesus’ teachings. There will be other teaching moments in Luke, and some containing memorable stories. Here Jesus ends with a simple story. As commentary on it, let me cite Eugene Peterson’s rendering from The Message. Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘That’s right sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you? These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on. If you work the words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who dug deep and laid the foundation of his house on bedrock. When the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, nothing could shake it; it was built to last. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a dumb carpenter who built a house but skipped the foundation. When the swollen river came crashing in, it collapsed like a house of cards. It was a total loss.

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